Is the Documentary Dead?

I used to think of documentaries as a relatively pure form of journalism.

A weighty subject was researched, investigated and reported upon using interviews and pictures, as appropriate, to illustrate a central thesis.

Now the satirists have got hold of the format and muddied the waters pretty comprehensively.

Think The Office and In the Loop, satire rendered in a reality-doc format.

And so it was that I sat down to watch Anvil: The Story of Anvil.  I had originally thought of this as a film, it had a short release in the cinema but is now being presented as a factual TV documentary in the Storyville strand.

Anvil are a real life Canadian heavy-metal band, so badly failed that the lead singer Lips now delivers school meals; “Shepherds pie, pizza, pizza, Shepherds pie” he points out helpfully.

The guys are getting by on memories of past glory when up pops a mad bleached blonde from eastern Europe and offers to organise a world come-back tour. There follows a catalogue of disasters from missed trains to non-existent audiences to no pay. Somehow they end up in a recording studio on the south coast of England, which seems to be located in someones kitchen. 

It is a touching tale, full of pathos but I can’t help feeling the hand of Spinal Tap upon my shoulder. The mockumentary informing the documentary.

The film makers were definitely encouraging this comparison with a highly knowing moment in which the dial is turned all the way up to 11.

But where does this leave us in terms of anchoring ourselves in reality? Will The West Wing always inform the American Presidential elections? Will  the ghost of Malcom Tucker forever haunt the corridors of Downing Street? Can we ever make a film about music without thinking of Spinal Tap, a band that didn’t actually exist but now plays gigs anyway? 

We have become so adept at creating a hyper satirised reality that a straight forward documentary no longer seems enough.

P.S. It comes as no surprise to me to learn that Anvil are now more successful than they have ever been thanks to the “documentary”/sales video.


One response to “Is the Documentary Dead?

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